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Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez meets Long Island kids

Olympic gold medal gymnast and author Laurie Hernandez

Olympic gold medal gymnast and author Laurie Hernandez with Kidsday reporters, from left, Madelyn Tonyes, Nyah Medina, Anastasia Mezynieski and Aulis Carr-Smith, from Oysterponds Elementary School, Orient, at Book Revue in Huntington. Credit: Newsday/Pat Mullooly

We met gymnastics gold medalist and "Dancing with the Stars" champion Laurie Hernandez when she was at Book Revue in Huntington recently.

When did you start thinking about writing a book, and what inspired you to write it?

I had written my first book in 2017. It got released in January, called “I Got This.” But then this year we decided to release a children’s book, and that really came from when I was little. I grew up reading children’s books. I mean, my mom had books always in the house. And now I have the opportunity to loosely create a story that’s my own and share it with the world. And I hope that a lot of kids have the opportunity to look at it.

How long did it take you to write your book?

Both books took a couple months, which was pretty quick. We found an illustrator named Nina Mata. She is incredible, and that was a really big part of the children’s book, making sure that the character could show my emotions even though it was a sketch and it was a photo that was drawn. I think the character embodies how I was as a kid, and I think that was the best part of it.

Were you nervous when you were in the Olympics, and who made you not want to quit?

I was really nervous when I made it to the Olympics. I mean, a lot of people like the adrenaline that they feel before competing. For me, it’s a little too nervous. I think because I competed so much and I learned to really calm myself down, once I’m on the equipment I’m fine because I do love the sport, and that’s the best part about it. And I think it was really my family who taught me not to quit. There were different moments that I wanted to quit gymnastics, whether it was because of injuries, or because it got really hard, but my family, everybody in my family did sports at some point.

Did you fall off the balance beam, like Zoey in your book? Did that make you not want to continue gymnastics? Did you have any other setbacks that made you not want to compete?

I have fallen off the beam and gotten injured, which was quite interesting. I didn’t injure my knee from the beam. I actually injured my knee from something else. But the story in the book is loosely based around me. Zoey is my middle name, and so we use that for the character. And pretty much, there were lots of different injuries that were a big reason as to why I wanted to quit gymnastics. But my knee was the biggest one. That’s why Zoey has that problem. But as you can tell throughout the story, her family is there to push her forward.

What age did you start gymnastics?

I was 5. That was in 2005. I started competing at 6, and I had to repeat the level twice because the first year didn’t go so well.

How many days a week and how long did you practice for?

Right before the Olympics, that was go time. That was making sure that we were in the gym all the time and making sure that it was perfect. We were there about six to seven hours a day, six days a week. But we had breaks in between, whether that be for school or for lunch.

Was there anyone jealous when you got to go to the Olympics?

Not that I know of. I had a lot of support in my life, which I’m really, really grateful about. And I started home schooling in the third grade so even the kids that I went to elementary school with were rooting me on, and they were posting about it and they were sending me messages. So I hope not — I don’t think so, but if there was, I’m not sure.

What was it like being on “Dancing with the Stars”? 

"Dancing with the Stars" was so much fun. And it was really interesting because as a gymnast we do everything barefoot. We don’t have any shoes. And so, having to really get used to those ballroom shoes and also get used to having a partner, that was something that was extremely different. However, Val [Chmerkovskiy] made the process super-easy and a lot of fun, too.

When did you first know you wanted to be an Olympian?

I was 9 years old. I had just finished the program called TOPs, which was the Talent Opportunity Program, and I had just done conditioning. We had to test how strong we were. And throughout the country, I actually came out in first, which really surprised everybody. We did not expect that at all. And so I think the thought from that was, OK, where can we go from here? And we realized that the end goal would be the Olympics.

Did you have enough time for family and friends during training?

I had enough time for family just because I would wake up with them, then I would get to come home and spend some time with them even though I was at the gym a lot. However, with friends, a lot of my friends were the friends that I made during practice. They were my teammates, and so I considered those to be my best friends. And I got to see them every day and because of training, we didn’t get to hang out too much, but I am also really, really close with my siblings. I mean, ever since I was little, we always found each other to be kind of like best friends. And of course we would fight, like some siblings do. But the older we get, the more we realize how close we are. So they’re really important, too. I would hang out with them during the weekends.

Do you get recognized a lot in public, and have you ever felt scared or unsafe?

I do get recognized in public. It really depends what time I go out. Like if I’m going to breakfast at 10 a.m., nobody minds, but if I go out around 3 p.m., then all the moms in the studio are with their daughters after school, and they start to freak out, which is really cute. I mean, for the most part, it’s every so often. It really depends where I am. And I think the only time that I ever felt scared or maybe a little unsafe was when it starts to turn into a big crowd. And it’s not meant to be a meet-and-greet, I’m just walking around. Because that can get a little scary, and nobody really understands what’s going on

We saw on your Instagram that you travel. What was your favorite place to travel to?

My favorite place to travel to for gymnastics would probably be Japan, just because I got to compete there twice as a junior, and that was a really fun competition. And I loved being able to get to sightsee in Tokyo. And then my favorite non-gymnastics place would be Greece, which I got to go there at the beginning of the year with my sister.

What was harder to write, your children’s book or your chapter book?

I think the chapter book was a bit harder to write just because the children’s book was a shorter, kind of toned-down version because it is for kids. Kids really look at the bigger picture, and it’s making sure that we have all the details there, but for the most part they like the big pictures. And so making sure that I had all the correct details for the chapter book —  the fun part was looking back at the memories to see how far I’ve come. But it was making sure that those memories were correct and so I was constantly going to my mom and saying, Hey, did this really happen when I was a kid or did I just remember it this way, and she was really helpful in that way.

Which was harder for you to win: "Dancing with the Stars" or the Olympics?

I think it’s really hard to compare the two because they’re so different. I mean, gymnastics, it’s training. Well, I trained for 11 years, and then you’re barefoot, and when you go out there, even though it’s a team event, you’re kind of solo while you’re competing. Whereas “Dancing with the Stars” was the complete opposite. It was training for 11 weeks instead of 11 years. You have high heels on. You have a partner when you’re out there. So it’s very different. Both were really difficult. But I loved both dearly.

Brittany Crosser’s fifth- and sixth-grade class, Oysterponds Elementary School, Orient

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